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Bread Crate Stackers and Ergonomics for Commercial Bakeries

Food production plants could — and should — be safer for workers. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 2.9 nonfatal workplace injuries per 100 full-time workers across all U.S. industries. In the food manufacturing sector, injury rates stood at 5.1 per 100 employees, significantly above the average.  Bread Crate Stackers and Ergonomics for Commercial Bakeries

Many of these injuries were musculoskeletal disorders: damage to muscles, nerves, and soft tissues that build up over time. Unlike a fall or a cut, there’s no single incident that leads to a musculoskeletal disorder. Instead, day-to-day tasks place stress on the body, with these microtraumas adding up to painful conditions like tendinitis, sciatica, and carpal tunnel syndrome. In 2018, a full 30 percent of injuries resulting in lost work days came from musculoskeletal disorders (abbreviated MSDs).

Because MSDs arise out of specific workplace tasks — each of which presents its own stresses and risk factors — there’s no one-size-fits all solution for reducing the hazard. Instead, each specific workplace must look closely at the requirements of each job, identifying risk points and intervening to remove them. In this post, we’ll take a close look at a task common to all industrial bakeries and the distribution networks that bring their products to market: Handling bread crates. There are some risk factors there. Luckily, we have a solution in mind: Bread crate stackers, a specialized form of crate lifters, like the Crate Wizard, available in the U.S. only at Solus Group.

The Ergonomic Risks of Handling Bread Crates

If ergonomics is the scientific study of workers at work, applied ergonomics is the practice of matching work to the worker. It’s how you reduce the risk of MSDs — and it often carries an added benefit of improving production. Ergonomic plans focus on the movements and stresses of individual tasks, and these factors descend naturally from the material at the heart of the task. Ergonomic risk factors associated with bread crates include:

  • Heavy lifting. Your standard plastic bread crate may not weigh much more than 3 pounds (1360 grams). Loaded, that figure rises, but rarely to the point of throwing out a back. The real risk occurs when workers lift whole stacks of crates — a common time-saving activity in many bakeries and distribution centers.
  • Repetitive stacking. Any motion can become destructive with enough repetition. That includes stacking and unstacking bread crates, a task that some workers perform frequently, shift after shift, day after day.
  • Bending under load. Working manually, you can only lift a stack of bread crates from the bottom. If crates are stacked near floor level, that involves bending, then lifting the load with the back bent, placing heavy strain on back muscles and spinal tissues.
  • Contact pressure. Bread crates often have handles, which is an ergonomic benefit. But those handles are usually thin plastic, forcing all the weight of the crate stack onto the worker’s fingers or palms — areas that are particularly susceptible to injury from pressure.
  • Moving and carrying crate stacks. Many workers carry stacks of bread crates across the facility. Weight shifts as they move, and the body adjusts and readjusts continually, adding to the risk of soft-tissue injuries over time.

Of course, bread crates are hardly the heaviest objects in the facility. But remember that MSDs develop over time, through repeated small stresses, rarely a single dangerous moment. Given the volume of crates that commercial bakeries and distributors handle, it’s important to address these hazards. Now let’s talk solutions.

Crate Stackers and Other Ergonomic Solutions for Bread Crates

A crate lifter is a material handling device designed specifically for handling crates. They’re available in manual, winch-powered models, and with electric powered lift engines. But most crate lifters on the market today feature a solid base plate; workers have to stack the crates onto the device before it will lift them. Certainly, with casters and push bars, these crate lifters reduce the burden on workers tasked with transporting crate stacks. And they’re ideal for lifting crates for more ergonomic movement onto tables, conveyors, pallets, and other elevated platforms.

But to get the greatest ergonomic (and productivity) benefits from material handling equipment, what you really need is a crate stacker. What’s the difference? A crate stacker is a crate lifter that grasps bread crates from the sides, not the bottom. That allows users to lift stacks of crates without pre-loading the device. It also lets them easily place one stack onto another without an awkward removal process. Crate stackers are the key material handling solution for any operation that deals with bulk bread crates.

Introducing a Bread Crate Stacker

The Crate Wizard is a crate stacker built just for plastic bread crates — or, more accurately, it’s built for the people who handle them. Ideal for use in facilities, on the loading dock, or inside truck trailers, the Crate Wizard gives a single employee the power to handle bread crate stacks of up to 551 pounds (250 kilograms) with ease. Its total footprint is just 4 inches (100 millimeters) wider than bread crates themselves, so it’s compact enough for narrow spaces — perfect for organizing trailer loads to optimize the shipping cube.

Unlike most standard crate lifters, the Crate Wizard uses side-grasping arms called BearPaws, which grip crate stacks at any level. There’s even an auto-height control that takes the guesswork out of counting crates. Altogether, this crate stacker makes stacking, unstacking, moving, and loading trucks both safer and more efficient — all with a single operator. The Crate Wizard addresses all of the ergonomic hazards listed above:

  • The Crate Wizard, and not the employee, lifts the load, removing bodily strain.
  • It can perform stacking tasks endlessly, while the employee simply repositions the unit and operates the control panel.
  • The BearClaw side-grasp arms travel to floor level, eliminating bending and lifting for users.
  • With the Crate Wizard, there’s no need to grab crates by their handles, saving fingers and palms from contact pressure.
  • This crate stacker bears the weight of loaded bread crates during travel; all the operator has to do is wheel it across the floor.

This is powered material handling equipment — but there’s no need for long cables or battery replacements. The Crate Wizard contains a 12 volt, 55 amp-hour sealed-gel battery with an included digital smart charger. Just plug it in between uses to keep it moving.

Fitting Crate Stackers into the Broader Ergonomics Plan

Of course, material handling equipment like crate stackers are just one solution for improving the ergonomics of bread crates. The California Department of Industrial Relations recommends a three-tiered approach to improving ergonomics in the food processing industry:

  1. Engineering improvements, or providing tools and equipment designed to remove the strain from the job. Crate stackers are one example of such an engineering improvement.
  2. Administrative improvements, which include changing the way you approach the task. For instance, you might have workers rotate jobs to reduce repetitive motion. You might add more recovery breaks to the workday. Administrative interventions also include training, a necessary component to any ergonomics plan.
  3. Personal protective equipment, or PPE, such as gloves that reduce contact pressure. Note that PPE is a last line of defense against injury, not a full solution on its own.

While crate stackers are a powerful force for improving safety and efficiency during crate-handling tasks, they should be integrated into a broader ergonomics plan to best protect the workforce. To learn more about developing an ergonomics plan for your bakery or food distribution center, click here. And for more information about crate stackers like the Simpro Crate Wizard, contact Solus Group at 314-696-0200 today.